The beauty industry through a feminist lense

The beauty industry is no stranger to criticism, yet it has received especially extensive and harsh critiques from feminist commentators. Despite its development, can it still be firmly argued that the beauty industry is anti-feminist?

Feminist critiques are centred on cosmetics having a history of being promoted to push women’s appearance as the most important quality, with a woman’s value and femininity being directly connected to beauty. Prominent feminist critics such as Susan Bordo, Andrea Dworkin and Naomi Wolf have all highlighted how the beauty industry revolves around the male gaze and is rooted in oppressive beliefs. Wolf’s book ‘The Beauty Myth’ contends that even in the guise of empowerment, the beauty ideals that are enforced are based on patriarchal values.

The ideal standard of beauty plays a key role in feminist discussions of the beauty industry. The features presented as conforming to this ideal standard are all the same: big lips, small nose, small face, and big eyes. Through this, individuality is minimised, and a hegemonic, Western standard of beauty is pushed to the forefront as to what every woman should aspire to have. The industry has excluded countless women (and men) from feeling beautiful through the strict standards that they have idolised.

From a feminist perspective, it appears that the structure of the beauty industry is founded on women’s insecurities. Women’s insecurities on looking old, on looking tired, on looking ‘ugly’. Even celebrities, no matter their popularity or alignment with the ideal standard, feel this insecurity. Makeup products are advertised as being the solution to these issues though the issues themselves have been promoted by the values that the industry has been based on for so long.

Another feminist focus is the objectification of women by the beauty and fashion industries. When it comes to advertisements, it is an image that is being sold. Though it can be argued that women are being treated as art and therefore, considered the subject, this is hard to do when beauty standards seem to be based on unattainable pretences and short-lived trends. This raises serious concerns as the features and body types promoted negatively influence women and come at great costs. This can be highlighted by the popularity of Kim Kardashian’s hourglass figure which led to an increase in corsets and BBLs. However, it has been predicted that ‘heroin chic’ is returning and this can be reflected through the return of low-waist jeans and the rise in buccal fat removal surgery. Jameela Jamil has voiced how this is dangerous with the ‘look’ itself a product of women going to extreme lengths to lose weight.

Even on social media, different makeup styles gain and lose popularity in a matter of hours from a fully contoured face to strawberry makeup. This quick shift in what is considered ‘trending’ and the response of the beauty and fashion industries to this, shows a gross commodification of women’s bodies. This is further emphasised by trends being based on unrealistic standards. Brands have been accused of using Photoshop in advertisements and there has been a rise in popularity of filters on social media which alter features and add makeup. Can beauty practices really be about true confidence if they are based on the objectification of women’s features and the exploitation of their insecurities?

However, the beauty industry has developed. Brands have understood the importance of showing support for feminism and self-expression, aiding in a change to the promotion of empowerment through beauty. This can be highlighted by M.A.C’s Love Me Lipstick campaign being centred on encouraging self-love, Charlotte Tilbury supporting Women for Women International, Avon calling for change to tackle gender inequality and NARS announcing Charlotte Rampling (68 at the time) as the face of their brand in 2014.  

Beauty practices also have a strong role to play in self-expression and identity. There is comfort and happiness that can be experienced through applying makeup. I can’t deny that there is a simple joy felt from putting on some lipstick and concealer even if it is just to sit in my house all day. Also, getting ready with friends and experimenting with makeup before a night out is such a fun experience of female bonding. The beauty industry does have sexist roots but that does not prevent women from reclaiming it.

The question of whether the beauty industry is anti-feminist and therefore should be abandoned is a difficult one. Though the beauty industry traces back to the oppression of women through pushing the idea of needing to be altered to fit societal standards, it must also be acknowledged that it has developed with beauty practices deeply connected to self-expression and empowerment. It is the focus on women being allowed to shape what beauty means to them that should be embraced by beauty brands.  

Featured Image: Rodolfo Clix on Pexels

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